Invention versus innovation

Will this post get Chris Masse to stop bothering me for a promised post on invention vs. innovation?

Many people have written on this, a few recent links, not all precisely relevant to the question.

One way of putting it is that six billion people generate a huge number of ideas, some number of which could be called inventions. Most are hopeless (the inventions; the people at least manage to survive for a time). Most of the rest are not actively pursued. The only way to test whether an invention is hopeless or useful is to attempt to deliver it at scale. So innovators (think of them as idea entrepreneurs, or whatever) both figure out which inventions are not hopeless and deliver the useful ones at scale. Innovators create all of the surplus, inventors do little more than breathe.

I’ve had an idea in my head for a few years that Masse recently mentioned in passing (not the moronic one he has recently written at length about). Have I done anything with the idea? No. Without implementation the idea is worthless.

Read Robin Hanson’s short The Myth Of Creativity article. Excerpt:

What society needs is not more creativity or suggestions for change but better ways to encourage people to focus on important issues, identify the most promising ideas, and tell the right people about them. But our deification of creativity gets in the way.

Do read the whole thing. Hanson’s target is slightly different than mine.

Before Masse calls me a fan-boy again (I don’t mind), I’ll pose the obvious question: how much of an innovator is Hanson? He’s clearly a fantastic ideas person, but ideas don’t matter. He seems a more productive innovator than the average academic, but that bar is probably very low.

A recent and very apropos Seth Godin post on Meeting Needs spurred me to finally write this. Godin:

Almost no new idea meets the needs of shareholders and CEOs. That’s because most of all they need predictability and apparent freedom from risk. This is why public companies are almost always on the road to disaster. They flee from change in order to do what they think is meeting the needs of those constituents. They fight changes in laws, policies, technologies and markets because their CEO (especially) wants a nice even flight pattern while he racks up big time options.

Shrink wrap software feels safe. Secure. Supported. Beyond reproach.

But…

It turns out that open source can do a brilliant job of meeting their actual needs (lower overhead to install and maintain, higher productivity to use, more stable over time) but the problem is that apparent needs (playing it safe, making your boss happy) almost always get in the way. Until it’s too late. When it’s too late, the competition has leapfrogged you.

Godin also mentions blogging, read the full post. One could substitute prediction markets for open source or blogging. Put that in your marketing pipe and smoke it, Mr. Chris Masse. :-)

16 Responses

  1. Robin Hanson says:

    I’ll take credit for creating some ideas the world has found useful, but I have completely failed both the market test and the academic test. That is, I can’t convince any business to let me join them to deliver my ideas at scale, and I can’t convince any top journal to publish my ideas.

  2. Tyler Cowen says:

    Robin is awesome, enough said.

  3. Tel says:

    “Invention” means “to come across” or to discover. In other words, you start without the thing in question and you do something and now you have the thing.

    “Innovation” means “to make anew” or to make some incremental change to an existing thing that improves or adapts the thing.

    These words already have well established meanings, no need to create your own.

    Neither of these words have anything to do with finding markets for the thing, nor with “at scale”. Being an entrepreneur is a separate issue. You can be an entrepreneur selling beans, selling shoes or selling ideas… the concept of packaging something and bringing it to the market for a profit doesn’t change all that much for different products (although methods for identifying a target market and advertising will change).

    Consider Archimedes Death Ray, which was the first documented solar concentrator. We don’t know whether it worked for Archimedes but we know that solar concentrators can be built and are useful for certain jobs. Thousands of years after the invention we still don’t see them being used very much and we have had many many innovations on the original idea (different shapes and arrangements of concentrator, sun tracking, vacuum tubes, etc). However, in the next decade they will probably become commercially feasible… not because of any magic entrepreneur nor because of any particular innovation, but simply because the price of oil is going up.

    So by your estimate, the accountant who correctly calculates the critical oil price beyond which solar concentrators become profitable is the real genius and Archimedes did “little more than breathe”. Thank you, but I’ll ignore your value judgement just like I’ll ignore your redefinition of existing English words.

    Come to think of it, I’ve seen the same value judgement in many engineering companies and it goes like this, “The sales department makes all the profit and the design and maintenance of the product is merely cost — if only we could get rid of the engineering department and only have sales then we would be vastly more profitable”.

  4. Chris Masse says:

    “Neither of these words have anything to do with finding markets for the thing, nor with “at scale”.”

    I respectfully disagree.

    An innovator is somebody who brings a new product to the market.

    (I took an Innovation 101 class.)

  5. […] The comment was made on this Mike Linksvayer’s blog post. […]

  6. gurdonark says:

    I am much less concerned with how you define your terms than with the points you make. Discussions of creativity are like discussions of theology–one has to begin by ensuring that all the players are using the same terms for the same concepts. Your post adequately explains how you are using “invention” and “innovation”.

    I’d rather move past all the terms definitions, useful and perhaps essential though they are, and focus on this clause:

    “So innovators (think of them as idea entrepreneurs, or whatever) both figure out which inventions are not hopeless and deliver the useful ones at scale. Innovators create all of the surplus, inventors do little more than breathe”.

    I think that “idea generators” and “pure theoreticians” and “idea retailers” (to alter your formulations with other analogous terms) all serve important functions. But “innovators” (who might also be called “project engineers”, “production mappers” or even “quilters”) who carry the ideas into
    play are essential. Also, “resource determiners” are critical, leaders, whether in corporate America, academia, Main Street small business, or government, who allocate which resources will be devoted to which ideas.

    I think that we are watching the test tubes rumble in the experiment to test whether the technology revolution (including the internet) has resulted in
    the ability of people with access to the capital markets, but not the dramatic structure of traditional corporate business and government, can cause sweeping change beyond electronic product design. It’s far too early to tell if the technological movement stemming from the internet and successful electronic technology has given rise to a new culture of getting things done. I personally hope (having to edit from “we all hope” to a more muted statement) that we are seeing a kind of “Can Do 2.0”, when
    large scale problems can be addressed by “innovators” who are able to work from relatively small platforms. Could small business, fueled with the methods of new technological innovation, solve some of the alternative fuels barriers in ways that the 1970s companies could not do? It’s too early to tell.

    I’m not very interested in dismissing the “idea generators”, as you do, but instead in celebrating the people who, to paraphrase Beagle, “colonize dreams”, but more important than the Beagle quote, who “colonize dreams and then make them fit on a desktop as fully operational usefulware”.

    Bringing “product to market”, whether it be a fuel or a solution to poverty in Mali, that’s the key. Those “market definers”, to coin yet another term, interest me.

  7. […] Cowen just linked to a comment left by Robin Hanson on this blog. I agree with Cowen’s comment left on the same post here: “Robin is […]

  8. gurdonark, I don’t really disagree with anything in your comment. My somewhat exaggerated dismissal of inventors is to counter what I see as a general overestimate of the importance of individual ideas of mythic proportions.

  9. […] Hanson writes: I’ll take credit for creating some ideas the world has found useful, but I have completely […]

  10. […] comment was made on this Mike Linksvayer’s blog post. Read the last blog posts by Chris. F. Masse:Does the HedgeStreet’s Human Resources Department […]

  11. […] For more on the “Invention vs. Innovation” debate, see this April 2007 blog post from Mi…. One way of putting it is that six billion people generate a huge number of ideas, some number of which could be called inventions. Most are hopeless (the inventions; the people at least manage to survive for a time). Most of the rest are not actively pursued. The only way to test whether an invention is hopeless or useful is to attempt to deliver it at scale. So innovators (think of them as idea entrepreneurs, or whatever) both figure out which inventions are not hopeless and deliver the useful ones at scale. Innovators create all of the surplus, inventors do little more than breathe. Read the last blog posts by Chris. F. Masse:US Vice-President Dick Cheney consulted for the publisher of the Harry Potter book.News we don’t really care about.Inkling Markets’ growth and successThe Max Keiser Bombastic Statement Of The Day.Harry Potter will survive The Deathly Hallows.Chris Masse is bull-shitting. On the paper, NewsFutures is OBVIOUSLY the market leader.Save the URL of this Midas Oracle blog post with: […]

  12. […] The answer to this dilemma is, of course, … and if Mike Linksvayer is reading this blog post, he’ll have already divined where I want to lead my readers with all this … the answer is, of course, innovation. […]

  13. […] –> As a background, first, re-read Mike Linksvayer. […]

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